Art That Goes Boom

The works of Cai Guo-Qiang, director of visual effects for the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympic Games, truly sizzle

For the 2005 Festival of China, artist Cai Guo-Qiang created a fireworks display over the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. (Ken Cedeno/Corbis)
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One of Cai's most challenging schemes is scheduled for October 15 in California. Commissioned by the San Diego Museum of Art, the project will be part of the annual air show at the nearby Marine Corps' Miramar air station. "During this spectacular showing of military power," Cai explains, "six planes will streak across the sky, and you will suddenly see these mountains being sketched out with skywriting. And then four planes will dive down the center to make a waterfall, and divert to either side, creating streams. It will be a traditional, Chinese landscape, a very beautiful, poetic image hanging momentarily in the sky until the smoke drifts away." Civilian stunt pilots will fly the planes for Cai, who hopes that the art-in-the-sky will startle viewers out of a Top Gun state of mind and into peaceful contemplation. "And that," he says, "is enough to make it worthwhile."

Cai is enthralled by flight, space and the potential of life beyond our solar system. Indeed, he often dedicates his projects to extraterrestrials, who, he likes to imagine, may glimpse his works from outer space. But for now, anyway, he himself remains earthbound. "I only ride a bicycle," he says. "I don't even drive a car, but in my heart, I am flying the space shuttle."

Not all of Cai's works explode, and not all of his ideas fly. His installation at the Sackler Gallery (October 30-April 24, 2005) will feature the remains of an old wooden Japanese boat, resting on a "sea" of white china fragments from a venerable porcelain factory in Dehua, China, near his hometown. He was inspired by the Sackler's collection of prized Asian ceramics and by how the art and ideas of different cultures have historically been spread through trade. Concurrently, at the Hirshhorn, the artist will be showing recent plans that never made it beyond his red studio door. Among them are renderings of a computerized fireworks project for Paris that would have created a 1,000-foot-high outline of a red pagoda alongside, and equal in height to, the Eiffel Tower.

The Hirshhorn show will also feature several of what Cai calls his gunpowder drawings, which he makes by dribbling lines of gunpowder on large swaths of Japanese paper, covering them with cardboard weighted down with stones, then lighting a fuse. The burning gunpowder etches the paper with surprisingly delicate traceries in black, reddish browns and yellows. The drawings, though often abstract, have the dreamy quality of a southern Chinese landscape painting and exemplify Cai's pursuit of beauty through explosive forces. This seemingly contradictory aim underlies much of his work, and is traceable, he says, to the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which holds that everything on earth consists of invisible energy, or chi, and that chaos is the true state of being.

Cai himself says that it's not just the flashy, pyrotechnic spectacle that's important. "It's that single, cataclysmic moment when matter turns into energy and creates a momentary spatial and temporal chaos." He adds that he doesn't much care whether that energy comes from a line of gunpowder or from a titanium shell salute: "It's the explosion," he says, "that matters."


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